English Language Committee: Sorry

Hey Jaimie,

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m not at my desk right now, answering your phone. I’m sorry.

Before I get into my how-sorrys or why-sorrys, I’d like to take a second in this email to talk about what “sorry” means. Seeing as we both work in the Etymology department, it only seems appropriate.

As you may already know, the phrase “I’m sorry” comes from the Old English sarig meaning “distressed” or “full of sorrow.” It shares a root with the Early German sairaz meaning “pain,” related to sar meaning “sore.” Sorry and sore share a root, which is illuminating, particularly in my situation. We can also look at the Old English sorg, which means “grief, regret, trouble,” and “care.” The most interesting of these definitions being “care,” as the word also means that you are deeply invested in the other person’s pain as well. Not only do you feel bad, you also feel bad that they feel bad.

In Modern English, we use the phrase “I’m sorry” as a way of saying “Oops! I didn’t mean to hurt you, will you forgive me?”

We forget the original root of the phrase, which, boiled down, is, “I’m in several states of pain and emotional distress because of what I did to you. I hope this information makes you feel better.” It’s not so much an express of regret over the offense as it is proving to the person that you are in a far worse state than you were before you wronged them. It is almost as if they were booby-trapped and because you did something to them, your offense was paid back in kind if not more so. Basically, “I hurt you. I’m hurt, maybe even worse. Even?”

We say “I’m sorry” (popularized partially by the 1964 show Get Smart in which the character says “Sorry about that!”) as a way of showing that they’ve won in the situation, and whatever harm you’ve done them has been done to you.

And the harm I did by eating your food (not marked “Jaimie”, by the way) has been paid back four-fold. I was unaware it was a walnut brownie. I happen to be spectacularly allergic to nuts. The amount of your food I consumed has not only been returned, but also my previous four meals, which adds up to a great deal of wasted money. On my utterly woeful assistant salary, that double sucks. I hope my pain (physical and fiscal) can be a balm for yours.

I am sorry. I am distressed, I am full of sorrow, I am in pain, I am in trouble, and I most DEFINITELY care that I have eaten your booby-trapped brownie. I am actually in an ambulance now.

I’ve cc’d all the men in the office on this email, as they will want to use a different mensroom until facilities shows up. I’ve also cc’d facilities. I’ve also cc’d the hospital, just in case I die in the hospital. I’m going to add my family, just in case, so they know who left a poison brownie on my desk for showing up a few minutes late.

I’m sending you this bill,


Adam Jenkins

English Language Committee

Asst. to Jaime Bort, Etymology Specialist

Sent From My iPhone